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The backstory: Samsung, the South Korean tech giant led by the Lee family, has been a major player across sectors from consumer goods to semiconductors. In 2017, trouble knocked on the door when its vice chairman at the time, Jay Y. Lee, found himself in legal hot water. Accusations of bribery and corruption swirled, all tied to his aspirations to control the company. Imprisoned twice for bribing a friend of then-President Park Geun-hye, Lee's initial 30-month sentence was reduced to 18 months in 2021 and came with a five-year employment ban.
In 2022, Lee was pardoned, clearing the path for him to lead Samsung. Last October, he took the role of executive chairman, following in his father's footsteps.
More recently: Lee, fresh into his role, faced new allegations of merger-related fraud dating back to 2015. Prosecutors said that during the Cheil Industries and Samsung C&T merger, Lee and his executive team pulled some questionable moves to influence the outcome, like accounting fraud and stock manipulation.
The development: A three-year-long trial is wrapping up in January, with prosecutors seeking a five-year prison term and a 500 million won (US$385.700) fine for Lee. The trial has focused on allegations that Lee and others manipulated that merger for personal gain, but Lee strongly denies any wrongdoing. He explained that the merger was part of ongoing efforts to deal with uncertainties like geopolitical risks and changes in the global supply chain. In his final plea on Friday, Lee stressed his duty to navigate global challenges and clarified he had no personal interests in his actions. The court will announce its decision on January 26.
"The defendants undermined the foundation of the capital market to ease the leader's succession," said prosecutors at Seoul Central District Court.
"I have never had my personal interests in mind in the course of the merger," said Jay Y. Lee to the court.
"It never crossed my mind to harm other shareholders to increase my stake. I and the other defendants thought the merger would help both companies. I thought it would meet the demands of society to make governance transparent and simplified," said Lee.
"The Board cited the current uncertain global business environment and the pressing need for stronger accountability and business stability in approving the recommendation," said Samsung in a statement when Lee took the role of executive chairman last year.